What makes Indian Textiles so exquisite?



A wide variety of beautiful textiles ranging from embroideried, woven, printed and painted comprise India’s rich textile heritage. For most of us, there is a familiarity with most of the textiles coming from all parts of India – like Banarasi, Baluchari, Chikankari, Kalamkari, Kanthas, Kanchivaram, Ikat etc. The skill of Indian weavers is also a well – accepted fact.

Mohenjo-daro_Priest_Mamoon Mengal_
Trefoil motif on shawl from more than 3000 years back!

The claim to fame of India for her textiles is known since 3,000 BCE, Indians knew the art of designing and weaving for centuries as proven by the shawl with trefoil motif worn by the famous bearded male sculpture and textile fragments found among the ruins of Mohenjo –daro of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Unfortunately, very few specimens of textiles have survived from the past, as India’s moist, tropical climate has been responsible for the irreversible loss of these perishable goods. Also, whatever remains have been found have not received the proper care and attention required for preserving them for weaving together the fabric of the Indian textile history.

Here I will highlight some of the most exquisite and famous of Indian textiles, those we love ❤

GOTAS OF RAJASTHAN: Amidst all the glitter, glamour and glitz of yesteryear the shimmer and shine of Gota stands out!

Gota wrapped, Johri Bazar, Jaipur

WHAT IS GOTA? This is a textile surface ornamentation technique which involves placing a woven gold cloth onto other fabric, preferably silk or satin, to create different surface textures.

Blush on the bride enhanced by the Gota encrusted garment 🙂

It is often complemented by ‘kinari’ or edging, which is the fringed or tasselled border decoration. Whether gracing the feet of the royal ladies as Gota butis on the hemline of ghagras or adorning the head as Gota patti on the odhanis Gota played a very prominent role in the lives of the Indian royalty.

The overall effect was one of enameling quite similar to the kundan – meena jewellery, a highly refined craft of Rajasthan.

TECHNIQUE: The Gota patti or strip was cut into fine shapes of birds, animals, and human figures, attached to the cloth encased in wires of silver and gold, while the space around was covered by coloured silk.

AREA OF PRODUCTION: Naila near Jaipur in Rajasthan remains the largest centre though you can buy Gota garments anywhere, even designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee use a lot of Gota. Good Earth recently launched its ‘Miniaturist’ collection with a beautiful story on Gota and used it uniquely.


The Orissa Ikat cotton sari, worn at the historic Chunar site


WHAT DOES IT MEAN? The Malay – Indonesian word – mengikat meaning to tie – is the source of the work Ikat.

This Ikat silk sari is well travelled

WHAT IS IKAT? It is a resist technique where the resist is applied to the yarns before they are woven. This involves a great deal of careful sorting of the threads before and after dyeing, wrapping and unwrapping of the areas to be resisted or dyed. In addition, care is taken in setting up the warps and wefts on the loom to ensure that the pre –dyed sections appear on the right place on the finished cloth.

HISTORY: Ikat textiles were used as a form of currency through the Silk Route centuries back! Female figures wearing Ikat can be seen even on the 7th century Ajanta fresco paintings. These textiles are still woven in India, Indonesia and Japan.

END PRODUCT: Mainly saris – cotton and silk – and lungis are made of Ikat. Even yardage, scarves and stoles are now available due to a huge global demand.

COLOURS: Earlier, vegetable dyes were used. ‘Indigo’ for blue, ‘geru’ for red ochre, ‘bettle ‘coccus lacci’ for brilliant red, ‘safflower’ (kasumba) for fugitive red- orange, ‘haldi’ or ‘marigold’ for yellow.


  • Warp or weft threads or both are divided into bundles and tied with waterproof material such as strips of leaf, car tyre or plastic, to correspond to pre arranged design
  • The tied bundles are dyed accordingly
  • Dyeing is according to the number of the colors used
  • Then, resists are removed from dyed threads
  • Next, they are aligned according to the patterns
  • Then these are set up on the looms – for warp threads, or wound into shuttles – for weft threads
  • Weaving is usually done in plain weave
  • But, only for ‘mashru’ there is warp faced satin

AREAS OF PRODUCTION: Single Indian Ikat are: Sambalpur, Bargarh and the districts of Sonepur and Boudh in Orissa, Pochampalli, Puttapaka and Choutuppal in Andhra, Rajkot in Gujarat. Double Ikat is exclusive to Patan in Gujarat.


Narratives woven into the sari: like wearing a graphic novel!!!


WHAT IS THE BALUCHARI? Named after the village of Baluchar, situated on the banks of the Bhagirathi in Murshidabad district in Bengal, Baluchari ‘butidar’ saris are outstanding for their choice of motifs and complicated weaving techniques.

HISTORY: There is no reference regarding the history, origin and the progress of the Baluchari sari. It is assumed to be linked with Murshid Quli Khan, the Nawab of Bengal who established Murshidabad. In 1704, he moved the capital of Bengal from Dacca to Murshidabad. For some time Murshidabad had been known as a center of sericulture, as East India Company had already opened silk factories there at Kosimbazar in mid 17th century. Due to good quality of Bengal silk, Murshidabad became a flourishing trade center where Jain traders, craftsmen and nobles came to settle. Since the newly established court exercised great influence it was conducive for developing such a unique form of art.

Women were in charge of dyeing, spinning and all processes preceding weaving; men wove the plain or brocaded silks.

The last critically acclaimed weaver Dubraj Das of Bahadurpur, and his disciple Hem Chand Bhattacharjee however did not teach the technique to anyone so, sadly, much of the weaving expertise of the Baluchar textiles died with them.

RAW MATERIAL:  Pure mulberry silk ‘Bombyx Mori’ that is traditionally produced in Murshidabad. No ‘zari’- gold or silver thread was ever used.

COLORS:  For ‘zamin’ – red, crimson, deep purple, dark blue, yellow, dark maroon, rarely a creamy white. Never black.

For motifs – mostly creamy white. Red, purple, green, yellow and a dark violet. Motifs are outlined with white.

MOTIFS:  Animals – tiger and deer in forest, stylized vegetation, figurative patterns, numerous members of court -smoking hookah, holding flowers, falcons, riding horses and elephants, sometimes being accompanied by attendants. Indian flags vividly drawn.

AREAS OF PRODUCTION: Most renowned was the ‘Baluchar Circle’ – main weaving done at Bahadurpur, Amaipur, Ramnapara, Ramdanar, Baligram, Bagdaner, Beliapoknur, Amodhar, Ramsagar in West Bengal.

Presently woven in and around Bishnupur.


Loom set for weaving a silk sari, it could take nearly a month depending on the complexity of the motif!


WHAT DOES IT MEAN? ‘Brocade’ is derived from the Latin word ‘brochus’ meaning, ‘to stab’ or ‘to transfix’. Benaras brocade is known as ‘kinkhab’, the origin and meaning of the word is still uncertain.

Luxurious folds!

WHAT IS THE BENARASI BROCADE? It is the most delicate and gorgeous silk fabric with a royal grandeur, formed of the most intricate intermingling of coloured silks, and gold and silver threads. It is a must for the Indian bridal trousseau ❤

HISTORY: Though references of ‘brocades’ or ‘cloths of gold’ are heard of since the Rig Vedic times, Benaras as a brocade weaving center gained lot of importance during the Mughal rule – 16th to 19th centuries. It rose and fell into prominence with successive dynasties.

The originality of the Benaras weavers lies in the fact that after absorbing the essence of a pattern, the designer used his own interpretation and innovated a suitable pattern of weaving.

RAW MATERIAL:  The chief raw material was silk yarn – largely imported from various production centers like Bengal, Kashmir, Central Asia, and China and even from Italy. Malda, in north Bengal, was the main supplying center of silk yarns.

The next most essential item was ‘kalabattu’, the gold and silver threads known commonly as ‘zari’. It was a specially prepared thread of silk with metallic mounting of gold, silver or gilded material. Earlier fabrics were made form pure gold wires, but were later replaced by gilt silver threads. Later even copper wires with a golden polish were used.

Surat was the chief producing center and supplier of ‘zari’ for Benaras kinkhab. Zari was also manufactured in Benaras itself. In a few cases zari was imported from abroad.

The peacock: when nature is so inspirational why not blend into it?

END PRODUCT: Saris, lehangas or accessories that could be worn as stoles, dupattas and even yardage that are now made into furnishings.

TECHNIQUE: The process was so elaborate and intricate that it took six to eight months to weave a richly designed brocade.

  • Preparation of silk yarn or silk twisting
  • Decolorization or bleaching and degumming of silk fabric. This brought sheen and softness to the yarn, making color presentation better
  • Dyeing of the yarn
  • Preparation of the warp thread. It had to be starched properly for the next step
  • Pattern making – most vital role in brocade manufacture
    • ‘Naqshaband’ or designer sketched the design on paper, or got it from the client. Then he created the design on a small wooden frame, known as the ‘jala’, to which cotton threads form a grid of the warp and the weft. (The jala is a form of the jacquard). He indicated the color scheme and distributed the ‘kalabattu’ for guidance of weavers. This is then hung from above the loom and tied to the warp threads. By lifting the attached threads the corresponding pattern is produced on the warp and extra weft threads and woven on the loom
  • Actual weaving with extra weft. Principal brocading was the most important feature of the art and woven on the loom with the help of an additional pencil shuttle carried in and out of the warp threads according to the needs of the pattern
  • Polishing – fabric was starched, pressed and polished for glaze

AREAS OF PRODUCTION: Apart from Benaras, Brocade is presently woven at Ahmedabad and Surat in Gujarat, Delhi and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Murshidabad in West Bengal, Tanjore, Tiruchirapally, and Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Stylistically the Maharashtrian group of brocades were woven at Paithan, Aurangabad, Raichur.

One of the favourite motifs – the lotus. The Chevron motif is in the sari border

Photo credits: to author, except for the Bearded figure IVC image from Wikipedia Commons


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